For better or worse, we have a new government and almost certainly, we shall see new leadership for many of the parastatals. One hopes that in the new administration, the new leaders will feel like they have something to prove. One specific area that we must get right in the short term (within five years) is our postal service.
There can be no dispute that the world has changed seismically over the past two decades – especially in the communication area. While Kenyans older than thirty will remember the days of the Kenya Postal and Telecommunications Company with nostalgia, younger Kenyans have no concept of anything less than instant communications.
Gone are the days of operators and reverse calls (for the younger Kenyans, these were times when one would call 900 to speak to someone to connect you to someone else’s land line and if you wanted them to pay for it, the Operator would ask them if they will accept “reverse call charges”) and in their place, the ‘Please Call Me’ phenomenon reigns. You know that you are of a mature age if you can remember ‘tapping the phone’ to call a sweetheart, so that you can be ‘given’ a date or if you ever called the operator to check the time (993 in Kiswahili and 994 in English – 991 was directory assistance).
Only a certain age group – probably over forty – can remember the Telex Machine and only a few more who know how to use the fax machine. Many of these Machines now lie idly in receptions of many of our companies, gathering dust for long periods of time.
Most urbanites have long neglected perfecting their handwriting skills as the typed message – SMS, MMS, Email, Social Media – takes over. In those memorable days (as late in the day as the early nineties), it was not uncommon for people in the same town to write each other and have to wait a couple of days for a reply. The letter is fast becoming an object of antiquity and the definition of literacy is quickly evolving from whether one can read and write, to whether one can communicate in the new media.
A government monopoly, the Kenya Postal & Telecommunications Corporation controlled all aspects of communications in Kenya. After it was dismantled in 1999, all that was left entirely in the government’s hands was the Kenya Postal Corporation, more commonly known as Posta Kenya. The Communication Commission of Kenya doesn’t count in this context as it is not a going concern.
The time has come to examine the extent to which this corporation is relevant in the future of Kenya. More accurately, the time has come to ask the question: is Posta Kenya a Vision 2030 corporation, one that will be relevant in the next decade?
This at a time when Email is fast replacing paper letters in formal communications (for instance this quote is no longer uncommon in offices, “I’ll just type the letter, put my scanned signature and ‘PDF’ it for you and I’ll include a scanned copy of my passport in the next hour”).
Leisure letter writing is almost non-existent and even among boarding high schools, scented and decorated “missives” (you can’t help but smile wistfully, can you?) are fast being replaced by Facebook Inbox messages in spelling that would dismay the most liberal English teacher – you know you are growing old if you cant read, “av misd u swrry…”
If letters are not going to be the communication of the next decade, where does the opportunity lie for Posta Kenya? In their struggles to innovate, Posta Kenya has experimented with a number of business evolution models. The most notable of these, is when Posta attempted to start cyber cafes at the post office. The only challenge was (a) competition was heavy with individual business people starting cyber cafes at every corner that they could and then (b) the mobile service providers started providing Internet facilities at speeds much faster than those cyber cafes – through the phone. So that put paid to that.
But we shall not be postal Mayans and spell apocalypse for the Postal Corporation. There is still one area that they have all that they need to excel and that should be the focus of the leadership of this corporation – if it is to be relevant in 2030: Logistics. Through out the ages, people will still want to deliver physical things across geographic spaces – people will always need to send packages to each other. Posta Kenya already has the logistical and conceptual know-how to facilitate this need, quickly, safely and cheaply.
The opportunity for Posta Kenya’s relevance lies in the delivery of packages but not merely from post office to post office – but direct to the doorstep. Their private sector competitors in this area already do this – albeit at a much more exorbitant cost than Posta would need to do it – after all as a government agency, their business model has to be “low-cost-high-volume” to fulfill their mandate as a public corporation. And in this case, Posta has an edge. Even in the villages, partnering with the provincial administration, Posta has the ability to deliver packages to the remotest parts of Kenya.
Give credit where its due: Posta does this already with the EMS service and Posta Parcel but as a side business. There is still to much of the parcel business that is being handled informally through the inter-city bus services like Molo line, Coast Bus and other bus and matatu services. People go for these services because they are reliable and can be trusted. Posta is seen as a massive bureaucracy instead of a helpful service provider.
Let’s be serious. As the world continues to grow more and more “instant” oriented – seeking to manage time better, get stuff delivered, the future of the post will be in delivering to the doorstep things that have been bought online. Web commerce is going to be increasingly the way of the future as companies like mzoori.com, OLX.com, gain momentum. I see a future where a relevant Posta Kenya could partner with such players as PesaPal to drive the new future of commerce and trade in Kenya.
Should Posta Kenya evolve into a primarily package handling corporation then their longevity as a business (because they are) is assured. They would spur growth of online businesses and complement the online and mobile payment systems already in existence. Otherwise, I predict in 18 years, to nostalgically tell my son stories of a little known, little used Government Corporation that used to mean a lot to us.